The science behind The Sixth Sense

Today is Friday the 13th  — in October — spooky! While I don’t want to give in completely to triskaidekaphobia — fear of the number 13 — it seems fitting to revisit some old superstitions. Particularly those regarding what’s been popularized as the “sixth sense.”

I remember when M. Night Shyamalan filmed his memorable first movie, The Sixth Sense, in Philadelphia. The film featured Bruce Willis in his first “sensitive” role, so to speak.

At the time, I was (putatively) running the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, which had its own creepy historic building — the infamous Mütter Museum of historical anatomy and pathology.

The college also worked closely with Philadelphia’s local arts and culture associations at the time. We frequented many of the film’s “locations” and received access to some of the related activities organized by the local film commission.

A few years later, I kept in mind some of these experiences when I helped my colleague, Michael Jawer, compile his first book, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: How Feelings Link the Mind, the Body and the Sixth Sense.

The book examines modern scientific explanations for paranormal phenomenon. And we found there may be a genuine mind-body basis for some anomalous experiences, like “seeing ghosts.”

Extrasensory experiences aren’t uncommon

Our findings for the book suggest that sensing a presence, seeing an apparition, or feeling energy around a “haunted” location may actually relate to the workings of the limbic system of the brain — sometimes called the “emotional brain.”

Indeed, surveys consistently show that one—third to two—thirds of the public say they’ve had an anomalous, extrasensory experience. And nearly 25 percent of people say they’ve actually “seen” a ghost.

People have reported such experiences throughout the ages and across all cultures and civilizations worldwide.

We also found that certain personality types (or psychometric types) are likely to have these experiences. They register these feelings more quickly and strongly than others.

Interestingly, these same personality types tend to be more susceptible to certain types of chronic medical conditions. Mike Jawer first noted environmentally sensitive people by studying what was known as “sick building syndrome.”

Turns out, people who experience these heightened perceptions also seem to have more pronounced or longstanding allergies, migraines, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel, or chronic pain syndromes. They also have unusual experiences like heightened sensitivity to light, sound, touch, and smell. They can even experience synesthesia (overlapping senses, like hearing colors, feeling numbers, etc.). (You can learn more about your personality type by taking this short quiz.).

Without a doubt, highly sensitive people react more strongly than others to incoming environmental stimuli. These individuals also pick up subliminal feelings and other environmental nuances.

These highly sensitive people can also pick up stimuli more profoundly at a reputedly “haunted” place than others can. Their brains process unusual stimuli and feelings by matching them to experiences in the “real,” physical world.

Of course, quantum physics and fundamental sciences open up entirely other vistas about what is “real.” It may be simply that some people (and animals) “see” other dimensions that others don’t experience every day.

But then again, today is not like every other day…or is it?